Diablo 3 launched in 2012 to huge anticipation, 12 years after the launch of Diablo 2, and 16 years after the release of the initial Diablo. The ratio of new Diablo releases as compared to years spent alive is on a tragically certain downward trajectory. Extrapolating from the current deceleration of new releases, let’s start the hype-train for Diablo 4 in 2048. By then, technology will have evolved to the point of Diablo 4 feeling frighteningly realistic to play; or society will have collapsed, and existing will feel frighteningly like playing Diablo 4.
Thankfully, heroes Activision-Blizzard have found a way of satisfying a more immediate desire for demon-slaying. Far underground in the dark corners of the Activision-Blizzard basement, occult experimentation has found a way to put monsters in your pocket. Yes, monsters in your pocket. Pocket monsters. Diablo Immortal.
Diablo Immortal is the demonetized (free-to-play) version of Diablo for mobile. Have a minute at the bus stop – play Diablo on your phone; Tinder date talking about their favourite reality TV show and making you wish you were at home playing Diablo? Play Diablo on your phone. Idle hands in need of work? Play Diablo on your phone. And to the few remaining cynics – what’s the matter, don’t you guys have phones?
Diablo Immortal has already attracted a fair amount of controversy. Diablo is a beloved role-playing dungeon crawler, and any attempt to modernize a franchise with such a dedicated fanbase is sure to court some controversy. How does one attempt to satisfy the expectations attached to a once groundbreaking game, the nostalgia for a game that occupies a rare and precious space in the memories of many gamers, and the insurmountable expectations created by long development times and a culture of hype driven journalism? (“Click here for our top 35 reasons why you NEED to play Diablo Immortal” – You’ve all seen it.)
Diablo Immortal was announced to a mixed reception at Blizzcon in 2018. There is already some great analysis as to why that announcement inspired such rage, confusion, and reaction from gamers, but it’s probably sufficient to say here that some people expecting an announcement of the next big Diablo release were disappointed to hear that it would be a free-to-play mobile version. Asked one incredulous and now infamous audience member – was this an out-of-season April fool’s joke?
As the more keenly eyed and time conscious among our readers will know, it’s now May and some three years since that announcement. Diablo Immortal is no April’s Fool’s Joke and is every bit as real as the impending climatological disaster. Fight the rising tides all you want, but sooner or later they’ll sweep you off your feet and you may as well enjoy the ride. I too yearn for the days of fully priced games and fully loaded experiences, but flailing in the floodwaters leaves one exhausted and vulnerable to blunt force trauma from driftwood.
And so, after quite enough grandstanding, let’s take a look at whether Diablo Immortal is a cynical attempt to cash in the name of a beloved franchise for a free-to-play mobile game that sacrifices playability on the altar of profitability, or an exciting new phase that evolves the game positively and for the better.
Exhibit A: Is it a Diablo game?
Diablo is known for a satisfyingly pacey, crunchy combat system and slashing through endless hordes of monsters is satisfying for longer than one might expect – aided of course by the promise of loot, progressive difficulty, and a healthy amount of variety from various classes and abilities. Does Diablo Immortal get the basics right?
Early indications from players who have been able to participate in the closed alpha of Diablo Immortal seem to suggest this is indeed the case. Combat is reportedly at least as good on Diablo Immortal as Diablo 3, and delivers an impactful, satisfying and visually solid experience.
In terms of story, Diablo Immortal takes place between Diablo 2 and 3, and will provide additional worldbuilding to further explain the origins of certain events and characters. An “untold chapter” in the Diablo world which provides players the opportunity to revisit and pre-visit areas from existing games, while of course offering new locations too. Both games are likely to be fresh in players’ minds with the resurrection of Diablo 2 in… Diablo 2: Resurrection.
On the whole, the transition to mobile seems to have been achieved without diminishing the core gameplay experience. Whether it raises the game both metaphorically and literally is a matter for Exhibit C.
Exhibit B: Business Model
Diablo is free-to-play with optional in-app purchases. The game will have three currencies: gold, platinum, and Eternal Orbs. Gold is earned in-game only and can be used to upgrade your gear or to purchase randomized gear from NPC vendors. Platinum can be earned in game or bought with real money; it is used to exchange goods (not gear) on the market. Eternal Orbs can only be purchased with real money and can buy cosmetic items and game-passes.
The good news in all this is that loot is fundamentally earned from gameplay. What remains to be seen is how frustrating it is to get anything good without spending real-world money – it will be hard to judge this prior to full release, as this aspect of the game will continue to be tweaked to achieve that sweet spot between playability and profitability.
Exhibit C: New Features
This is where things get a little more exciting. The new Diablo game introduces a few systems and game modes that make it play rather more like an MMORPG. Firstly, players may encounter each other randomly while exploring the game world. This is a departure from previous series entries, where playing multiplayer is a conscious act of forming a party with others. This also gives rise to dynamic events where players can team up to take down special events; one imagines special bosses and/or defending an area against hordes of enemies.
Next up, the Helliquary. As we all know, a reliquary is a container of relics. Fill that reliquary with boss demons, and you’ve got yourself a Helliquary. Hunting down powerful enemies for trophies and putting that trophy in your Helliquary grants your character permanent bonuses. Supposedly, a new boss will be released each month, making for a regular and varied form of high-end content.
The Cycle of Strife is probably the most intriguing new system. This is an optional PvP system for players who have reached the endgame. This system will see a faction of players called “Immortals” pitted against members of the “Shadow” faction organized into guilds or “Dark Houses”. The Immortals will be limited to 500 players per server and will have a designated set of activities to complete, including a 48-player raid with four groups of 12 players fighting bosses simultaneously. Shadows players are not limited in number and will have the task of trying to unseat and undermine Immortals.
This asynchronous PvP system culminates in the Rite of Exile in which the 10 strongest Dark Houses will fight against the best players in the Immortals in 8v8 battles. If Immortals win most of these battles, the structure of the Cycle of Strife stays the same. If the Shadows win most of the battles, the strongest Dark Houses will become Immortals. This cycle will repeat every one-to-three months.
And with that my friends, we’ve reached the end of the Exhibits. There are usually many more, but we’ve suffered with COVID and are only able to open at around 30% capacity. If I may offer a controversial and technically uninformed opinion, Diablo doesn’t appear to be a game which should ever require a very powerful system to run. The player perspective is fairly zoomed out, the combat doesn’t require huge amounts of complex animation or sophisticated AI programming, and there aren’t tons of complex game mechanics in play.
For that reason, it seems sensible to evolve Diablo on mobile, a platform which can make the game more accessible and arguably enables a stronger focus on some interesting socio-competitive gameplay features. While the game has certainly already courted controversy, if it offers the experience of Diablo 3 on a mobile device, I’m already interested. If it expands on this with genuinely compelling new multiplayer experiences, I may just have to get one of these smartphones that the Diablo Immortal development team so recommends.